On the Road Again

This state was designed for explorers -- and a 1986 Jeep Wagoneer.

I'd finally driven my 1986 Jeep Wagoneer into the ground.

I'd driven it over the Rockies and the Sierras and all sorts of lesser mountain ranges. I'd driven it to the second-largest meteor crater in the country, just past the oil derricks and the tumbleweeds outside Odessa, Texas. I'd driven it over the gaping maw of the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, El Paso -- I'd driven it everywhere.

And before this particular day, the Jeep had never betrayed me. Never stranded me. I trusted it and knew its quirks and eccentricities. As beaten as my Jeep was (read: extremely beaten), I truly loved it.

Gone but not forgotten: The well-traveled Jeep 
Wagoneer.
Gone but not forgotten: The well-traveled Jeep Wagoneer.
Another roadside attraction: Bill Swets at his 
Swetsville Zoo.
Brett Amole
Another roadside attraction: Bill Swets at his Swetsville Zoo.

On Cinco de Mayo, 2002, the Jeep and I were returning from a wedding in Manhattan (Kansas, that is) when the Jeep shuddered a quarter-mile before the Colorado Boulevard exit on I-70. It refused the gearshift and pounded my eardrums with an ominous knock. The odometer struggled to spin past 243,322.8 miles. It hadn't the strength -- nor did my bank account.

It was the end. The Jeep was officially done. If it hadn't been for my friend John's superlative mechanical efforts (and friendly prices), the thing probably would have died years earlier.

Instead, it had carried me tens of thousands of miles farther, to sights both awe-inspiring and awful. At the final count, there were over a hundred bumper stickers on the Jeep's bumper and gate and windows, advertising every place from Wall Drug and Yellowstone to Route 66 and Roswell (not to mention Motörhead and Ween). We'd been to them all.

This summer, I'm in possession of a more economical 1990 Volkswagen Jetta, which will have to do until I find another old Jeep. And in the meantime, in a requiem to my departed ally, I remember the top-ten road trips my now-recycled four-wheeler took across Colorado.

Colorado Gators

In the late 1980s, the Young family, who had been making a living in the San Luis Valley by farming a variant of fish from the Middle East, brought in a hundred six-inch baby alligators. Naturally, the Youngs assumed only a handful would survive, subsisting on the dead fish from the farm.

The Youngs were wrong. The alligators prospered in the geothermally heated 87-degree waters, sunning themselves atop snowbanks during the winter. The baby alligators are monsters today, topping out at about seven feet, and the Colorado alligator farm has emerged as a leading advocate of responsible reptile ownership. For an added Old-West thrill, gator-wrestling classes are offered sporadically.

Colorado Gators is in Mosca, about seventeen miles north of Alamosa via Colorado 17. For information, call 1-719-378-2612 or log on to www.gatorfarm.com.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Sure, the Grand Canyon is Vast. (That V is capitalized for a reason.) And Kings Canyon is as idyllic (Valhallic?) as it gets, at least outside of Norway.

But for my money (and the Jeep's gas), the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the steepest, most dramatic canyon in North America. The avian ecosystem, Painted Wall (the height of the Empire State Building, times two) and isolated North Rim, where Joe Cocker recently closed his restaurant -- they all make the Black Canyon worthy of a visit. And yet, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison gets fewer than a half-million visitors a year, one-tenth of the folks who head, lemming-like, to Rocky Mountain National Park. It's the unknown gem of the national park system, and a real bargain at an admission fee of a mere $7 per car per week.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is about ten miles northeast of Montrose. Call 1-970-641-2337 or log on to www.nps.gov/blca.

Leadville

Screw Aspen. And Vail. And every other ski town in the book.

For my hard-earned petrol dollar, Leadville is Colorado's real mountain town. The highest town in the nation -- at 10,200 feet above sea level -- also has the richest history in the state. This is where Horace Tabor built his Tabor Opera House, where Baby Doe died at the Matchless Mine. The streets of Leadville overflow with boom-and-bust ambience; the surrounding area is packed with recreational opportunities, whether it's skijoring at the Winter Carnival or climbing Mount Elbert (the easiest fourteener in the state).

For information, contact the Leadville/Lake County Chamber of Commerce at 1-719-486-3900 or go to www.leadvilleusa.com.

Swetsville Zoo

Bill Swets may have lost his hearing, but his creativity is at its peak. The Swetsville Zoo, his little-known contribution to the category of "Roadside Americana," is as inspired and imaginative as anything this side of Stanley Marsh 3. (The first person who e-mails me -- at eptcb126@msn.com -- the correct bio of SM3 wins a free piece of third-rate travel literature from my bookshelf.) Crafted from abandoned auto and hay-baler parts -- and whatever else was left near the Swets's kitchen sink - this odd menagerie is worth a hefty contribution in the Swetsville Zoo's donation box.

The Swetsville Zoo is near Fort Collins, a quarter-mile east of the Harmony Road exit off I-25. For information, call 1-970-484-9509.

Lost Lake

There are three Lost Lakes in Colorado -- one near Granby, one near Gunnison, one near Fort Collins. And those are only the Lost Lakes that have been found.

There's no better place to spend the day than on or alongside a misplaced body of water, especially if the day is July 4 and you're floating alone in paradise while chaos and gunpowder rule in the city below.

Trail Ridge Road

Sure, it's crowded. And the air is anorexic. But no other paved road in Colorado showcases as many celebrated peaks as Trail Ridge Road, the aorta of Rocky Mountain National Park.

My only tips: Grand Lake is much less trafficked than Estes Park, so head in from the west; dogs are allowed only on the Bowen and Baker trails; and get the hell out of your car and onto the trail, you lazy TV junkie.

For information on Rocky Mountain National Park, call 1-970-586-1206 or log on to www.nps.gov/romo.

Lost Creek Wilderness Area

For an eighty-mile click from downtown Denver, camping doesn't come any better than in the Lost Creek Wilderness Area. You'll find cool summer days, trout-rich beaver ponds and remnants of the pioneers, as well as the Colorado Trail and the excellent Ben Tyler Trail. Camping comes developed (i.e., with outhouses), undeveloped (i.e., without outhouses) and downright gnarly (i.e., with outhouses that date from 1899).

Lost Creek Wilderness Area is near Jefferson, about 75 miles southwest of downtown Denver via U.S. 285. For information, call 1-719-553-1400 or log on to www.fs.fed.us/ r2/psicc.

Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs

At about 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the pools here sizzle and soothe. The scenery is wonderful, and it's even better when the moon is out. The first -- and last -- time I visited, I got naked with a Zoroastrian girl. How can you top that?

Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs is about ten miles north of Steamboat Springs. For information, call 1-970-879-6834 or log on to www.strawberryhotsprings.com.

Rafting the Arkansas

The Arkansas River is the most commercially rafted river in the country. But unlike the second-most-rafted river -- the Ocoee in Tennessee -- the rafting area in the Arkansas runs for about 100 miles (versus 25 for the Ocoee), right through the Royal Gorge. Outfitters such as Rio Expeditions (1-800-291-2080, www.rioexpeditions.com) and Wilderness Aware (1-800-462-7238, www.inaraft.com) will take you where you want to go for about $75 a day.

Colorado Springs, with its escalating thirst, looks longingly at the Arkansas. But no one should ever try to tame this beast.

Carhenge

All right, Carhenge isn't in Colorado, but this nearby monument to dead vehicles is a fitting end to a road trip in memory of my dead Jeep. Built during a Reinders family reunion in 1987, Carhenge is a meticulous re-creation of Stonehenge -- constructed entirely from Gremlins, Cadillacs and other gray-painted hulks of American automobilia. My only regret is that the Jeep could not have been laid to rest by their side.

Carhenge is about 250 miles northeast of Denver near Alliance, Nebraska. For information, log on to www.carhenge.com.

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